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Originally published Monday, August 24, 2009 at 5:14 PM

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Idaho wolf tag sales brisk as judge considers hunt

Matt Yost has hunted elk, deer and antelope for years on a college buddy's sheep ranch in Idaho's Southern Mountains, not far from the resort region of Sun Valley.

Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho —

Matt Yost has hunted elk, deer and antelope for years on a college buddy's sheep ranch in Idaho's Southern Mountains, not far from the resort region of Sun Valley.

After a wolf pack killed 19 domestic rams there recently, Yost was at Idaho Department of Fish and Game offices in Boise on Monday adding the predator to his list of possible targets.

It was the first day Idaho wolf tags went on sale for a hunt slated to start next Tuesday. By mid-afternoon, the state was reporting about 4,000 tags sold, as hunters motivated by curiosity, novelty - and in some cases frustration with predators' impact on wildlife and livestock - shelled out $11.50 for a wolf tag.

This year, Yost's friend with the sheep ranch had made a special request.

"He called me and said, 'If you're going to show up, you'd better have a wolf tag," Yost said.

The federal government lifted Endangered Species Act protections from most wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains in May and now Idaho and Montana are gearing up for first open gray wolf hunts in the lower 48 states since delisting. Idaho last week approved a 220-wolf hunt, about a quarter of the state's estimated 1,000 wolves, with limited hunting due to begin on Sept. 1. Montana approved the shooting of up to 75 wolves starting in mid-September.

It's still uncertain if hunts will even proceed.

Thirteen environmental groups that have sued to overturn the federal delisting will get a hearing next Monday - one day before Idaho's hunt would begin - where U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula will hear their arguments on why a wolf hunt should be halted.

At the Cabela's Inc. sporting goods store in Boise, hunters lined up at the customer service counter to get first crack at licenses that began selling at 10 a.m. Jennifer Fusselman, Cabela's event coordinator, said most of the people purchasing the right to kill a wolf had already bought another big game elk or deer tag.

Ed Mitchell, an Idaho Fish and Game spokesman, said "about 98 percent" of hunters who bought tags the first day were from Idaho. Out-of-state hunters must pay $186.

Wolves were reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in the mid-1990s after being nearly exterminated six decades earlier by hunting, trapping and poisoning.

By now, they number more than 1,650 across the region, though only Idaho and Montana plan 2009 hunts; in Wyoming, the animals' federal protections remain due to a state law considered hostile to wolves.

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Since their reintroduction, wolves have been a lightning rod for disputes between environmental groups and ranchers and hunters who blame them for killing too many sheep and cattle, as well as prized big game species like elk and mule deer. For some, the chance to shoot a wolf is a symbolic opportunity to take back control of a species they blame the federal government for forcing on them in the first place.

Brent Martell, a 40-year-old Meridian resident who has hunted near Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains for nearly three decades, said he's ridden his dirt bike 1,500 miles this year on backcountry trails here and has yet to see a live elk. He's seen wolves three times.

"Each time I've stopped and they've come toward me. There's no natural fear," said Martell. "It's time for them to be managed properly. It needs to be done right, but it needs to be done now."

In documents filed last week by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, groups including Defenders of Wildlife and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition demanded Idaho and Montana hunts be stopped while they seek to restore federal protections.

The groups insist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illegally delisted the animals without properly evaluating factors such as whether wolves' survival will be threatened if animals are prevented from successfully interbreeding with members of other packs. Hunting, they said, will only makes things worse.

"The federal delisting and state management plans don't provide for a sustainable wolf population in the Northern Rockies, and wolves should not be hunted at this time - particularly not at the unsustainable levels that have been announced for this fall," said Suzanne Stone, of Defenders of Wildlife in Boise.

Depending on Molloy's decision, Idaho could be forced to refund thousands of hunter's tag fees.

Idaho officials have estimated as many as 70,000 wolf tags might eventually be sold for the hunt that in some areas runs through next March 31. The figure represents about half the roughly 140,000 tags sold annually for deer and elk.

"We've always been a little cautious, warning people we could have the injunction," said Jon Rachael, state game manager for Fish and Game. "There would be quite an uproar among our Idaho hunters."

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